How Robotics are Automating a Solution to the Labor Shortage & Growing Customer Demands

Published: Apr 25 2019
About the Author
Mike Futch
Mike Futch
President, Tompkins Robotics

Negative publicity and speculation that robots will eventually replace humans in the warehouse has circulated quite a bit in the last few years. While it’s true that robots are making their way into more and more operations, the truth is there are not enough skilled workers to fill the number of available jobs. ‚Äč

According to a study by Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute, the skills gap may leave an estimated 2.4 million positions – more than half the manufacturing jobs – unfilled between 2018 and 2028. The Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME) also reports that 89% of manufacturers are having difficulty finding skilled workers, which is partially due to an aging, retiring workforce and lack of desire among younger workers to enter the manufacturing field.

The workforce pool is not the only thing that is shrinking. The study also found that nearly one third of businesses are turning away new business because of labor limitations. Recent research by Korn Ferry Institute estimates that the labor shortage in the global manufacturing industry could result in more than $607 billion in lost revenue by 2030, with the U.S. representing more than 10% of the global deficit at a total of $73 billion in unrealized output.

eCommerce growth has amplified the labor demand, specifically in warehouses and distribution centers. One way the market is coping with this prolific growth amidst the current labor drought is through robotics and automation. Analysts at ABI Research predict the number of warehouses using robotics will grow from 4,000 to 50,000 globally by 2025, with nearly half of those robotic-supplemented warehouses – 23,000 – in the U.S. alone. 

Automation adoption has continued to rise over the past six years, as companies are facing increased pressure to cut costs, address the workforce shortage and provide an optimal customer experience. A 2019 survey by Deloitte and MHI found that more than 53% of respondents are already using some form of automation in their operations, with another 22% planning to implement automation solutions over the next two years.

Robotics are a popular form of automation due to their versatility, affordability and efficiency. Their applications span across the entire supply chain, from pick and pack to sortation and transport. Robotic solutions also offer scalability and rapid deployment, with a typical installation going live within just four to six months.

The cost savings associated with robots are very attractive to organizations. In addition to performing many tasks quicker than their human counterparts, robots do not require insurance or benefits, and can reduce costs associated with employee overtime, seasonal and temporary staffing, and skills training. Additionally, ROI for this form of automation is typically achieved in under two years. Amazon reportedly saves an annual $22 million per warehouse by utilizing robots at its fulfillment centers.

Robotics and automation are also helping companies address constantly growing customer demands. Rapid, free shipping is an expectation among consumers today, thanks to Amazon and the growth of eCommerce. As companies compete to deliver the best customer experience, automation and robotics provide a cost-effective, speedy solution to many of today’s demands.

Walmart recognizes the value in automation, as the mega-retailer continues to invest heavily in robotic innovations throughout its operations. In addition to its well-known Pickup Towers, Walmart is expanding deployment of several other automated technologies, including its floor scrubbing and shelf scanning robots, allowing its associates to perform more customer-facing tasks.

Robotics’ rising popularity extends beyond the eCommerce giants. Small and midsize manufacturers and retailers as well as grocery stores are also embracing the use of robotics in both warehouse and store operations.

While robots will never fully replace humans in the supply chain, they have proven to be a very valuable complement to existing operations, relieving employees of performing mundane, highly technical and physically demanding tasks while also helping organizations improve their bottom line.

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In response to COVID-19 and limiting travel, Tompkins Robotics is now offering interactive virtual tours using a variety of stationary and roaming cameras throughout the facility.  We have the capability to demonstrate five t-Sort systems with various configurations, robots and functionalities.  The main demonstration system includes three different induction types: manual, robotic and A-frame.  Our systems are capable of e-commerce order fulfillment, store replenishment, backroom and parcel / postal sortation.  We can demonstrate the original t-Sort robotic system in multiple dual level configurations and an elevator system to move robots between the levels.  Our larger t-Sort Plus robots run on single level systems with both tilt tray and crossbelt options.  In the very near future we will demonstrate the new t-Sort Mini in an additional system. We have a wide variety of inventory to demonstrate products including general merchandise, apparel, grocery, fragile goods, odd sizes and shapes and a wide range of product weights.  You will also have a chance to learn about the technologies that are integrated into our system such as automated induction, automated charging, integrated weight and dimension capture, our proprietary wireless network and Warehouse Execution System (WES), new innovations such as our automated sorter exit solution and more.  And if mobility and flexibility are important to you, we can demonstrate how easy it is to reconfigure a system, remove or add a sort table, and even fold a table into a smaller footprint for move or transport.